A Dispiriting Message

Regardless of the performance of their previous special representatives to the Middle East, the European Union should not do away with the important position.

Yonatan Touval
Sharon Pardo
Yonatan Touval
Sharon Pardo

As Israelis and Palestinians formally resumed direct talks this week for the first time in 20 months, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was in China. Yet while her absence from the Washington ceremony was branded in certain European capitals a "shame," the real shame lies in a decision which European foreign leaders appear set to approve within the next two weeks - that of scrapping the EU's post of special representative to the Middle East peace process.

Created in 1996 following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the wave of terror bombings that winter, the post of special representative was designed to help revive the moribund negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and steer the parties toward a final settlement.

To that end, the European envoy was given a wide-ranging mandate that included establishing and maintaining close contacts with the parties, observing ongoing negotiations and working to prevent actions that could jeopardize a final settlement. The envoy was also to act as the point person for an increasingly cumbersome EU foreign policy apparatus.

Fourteen years later, the combined record of the two people who have served as special representative to date is a mixed one. The first, Miguel Moratinos, an impassioned diplomat who today is Spain's foreign minister, set up his base as special representative in Cyprus, from which he tirelessly shuttled between and maintained daily contacts with regional leaders and players, and assisted Brussels in staying focused even during the most volatile periods.

And while by the end of his term, in 2003, the peace process had faltered, Moratinos made a lasting contribution by committing to writing his own understandings of what Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were ready to agree to at Taba in January 2001. His memorandum remains the most nuanced testimony of Israeli and Palestinian positions, inspired the unofficial yet influential Geneva Initiative three years later, and serves as a blueprint for a final resolution to this day.

The record of his successor, a Belgian diplomat who successfully eluded one of the principal expectations of the post - that of establishing a permanent presence in the region - is less clear, limited as it has been to overseeing a number of projects in the civil and security arenas.

That the EU should wonder about the necessity of keeping a special representative in the region, therefore, is understandable. But the factors that must guide its decision should not be limited to a narrow evaluation of the envoys' performance to date.

After all, the very existence of the post bears strategic import in signaling Europe's commitment to the peace process, and to abolish it is thus to send a dispiriting message about Europe's assessment of the likelihood of a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

It is doubtful that this is the message that Europe wants to send, not least given its long-standing desire, first enunciated in its 1980 Venice declaration, to carve out for itself a unique and active role in Mideast peacemaking. Frustrated though the EU may occasionally be that the resources it has been asked to commit have mostly been financial ones, scrapping the envoy post would only further weaken its position: As the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, the EU would find itself underwriting a process having renounced any claim to influencing its course.

Nor is the urgency of maintaining a special envoy reduced by the renewed activism of the Obama administration. With direct talks being launched, the U.S.' special envoy will primarily be concerned with removing hurdles along the way and facilitating the talks' outcome. The EU representative can carry out a complementary role by bringing coherence to European foreign policy in the region, providing an additional political perspective, and - when necessary - enabling Brussels to play the bad cop to Washington's good (and vice versa ).

As for the EU's membership in the Mideast Quartet - alongside the U.S., Russia and the UN - if Brussels wants its role to be more than a token one, it must have its own envoy on the ground.

Finally, the envoy must bolster the credibility of the EU vis-a-vis the parties in the region. Indeed, the presence of a special envoy is especially vital in view of Israel's propensity to sidestep Brussels in favor of dealing directly with individual European capitals. Without a single point of contact, the EU would be even more hard-pressed to convince Jerusalem, and therefore other regional players, to treat it as a bloc.

Given that its ambitions go far beyond the regional confines of the Middle East - indeed, that it aspires, as Brussels' occasionally highfalutin rhetoric puts it, to be a "global player," "an agent of change" and a "trendsetter" - the EU must revisit its decision. And while a certain proverbial wisdom would caution against throwing out the baby with the bathwater, a change of personnel in the envoy's position may well be merited. Brussels, that is to say, should do what it takes to keep meddling in our waters.

Sharon Pardo is the co-author of "Uneasy Neighbors: Israel and the European Union" (Lexington Books, 2009); Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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